Everyone likes bees. Brightly colored, fuzzy, industrious: what’s not to love? So if you wanted to make bees even more appealing or exciting, there’s only one way to go: make them into space bees! That’s the setup for Apiary, the new strategy game from first time designer Connie Vogelmann. In the far future, bees have evolved intelligence and taken their peaceable lifestyles to the stars. Players are rival factions, who must both cooperate and compete to demonstrate their philosophies are superior.
What’s in the Box?
Like a lot of modern strategy board games, Apiary starts with a lot of cardboard-punching. There are all sorts of building and upgrade hexes to push out of their cardboard sprues, along with waggle dance tracks, planet tiles and various other chits and counters. A deck of seed cards is also included, and there’s a big fold-out board with various tracks and action spaces on it. It’s all serviceable enough stuff, although the art is a little drab.
Fans of wood and plastic won’t be disappointed when they go rummaging in the deeper recesses beneath. There are shaped wooden tokens to track supplies of various resources, with the wax and honey tokens being painted a neat metallic sheen and a chunky bee miniature that serves as the mothership which flies around exploring the galaxy. Each player color also has four plastic worker pieces, which are bee-shaped but with a cubic center that rotates to show values between one and four. These are ink-washed so you can see the numbers and details clearly.
Player piece sets are rounded out with some wooden cubes in their color to record progress on various tracks and a docking mat to organize their pieces. Players also get a hive mat which has spaces for their growing colony and a faction tile which gives them some starting hexes for their hive and a condition for extra victory points. There are five different hives and 20 factions, so there are lots of possible starting combinations.
There’s a lot of stuff in the box and, at first, it looks like it won’t all fit back in. However, there’s a clever plastic organizer included which keeps it all together. How it all packs down isn’t obvious and there’s no guide in the rules, but a quick search online should show you how it works.
Rules and How It Plays
At first glance, Apiary looks like a classic worker placement and resource management affair. Most of your turns will be spent placing worker bees from your docking mat into action spaces on the board and gaining the benefits. Explore lets you move the mothership around, revealing planets and gaining resources. Advance lets you spend those resources to gain farm, recruit and development tiles to add to your hive, each of which grants additional bonuses. Grow gives you the chance to add empty cells to your hive for future building, or new workers to place on future turns. Convert does what it says on the tin, allowing you to change up basic resources for more advanced ones.
As ever in games of this style, the overall aim is to gain victory points, and there’s a bewildering array of ways to do so, in the interest of offering multiple ways to win. From this standpoint, it’s still a standout title that features a lot of nicely rounded and well-integrated mechanics. You need buildings on your hive mat to store resources, for example, but you also need the resources to gain the buildings. Not only is this circular dependency interesting to solve mechanically, but it prevents players from stockpiling. It also adds a fun spatial strategy aspect to what otherwise might be something of a spreadsheet game. The same goes for exploring the galaxy, a mini-game where you move the mothership on a grid in which empty spaces reveal a random planet which may, or may not, grant you the resources you want.
But the game has a novel trick up its sleeve to surprise you, and it’s a doozy. Not all workers in Apiary are created equal. Those numbers on the body of each worker indicate its level, and this has a critical impact on play. Most actions work better the higher the level worker is assigned to it. More resource conversions on the convert action, more squares to move on the explore action, and so on. Furthermore, explore and advance can hold two workers each, and when a second worker is assigned you get to use the sum of both levels, regardless of which player owns the other.
This sets up a fascinating dance of interaction. Going first lets you grab the action and results you’re looking for, but waiting may be beneficial, as you might get to tag along with a higher-level worker. Furthermore, workers don’t block each other from spaces in Apiary. If you want to use an occupied spot, you can go right ahead and do so, but the owner gets their bee back, gets to increase its level and can choose either to use it again on a later turn on “land” it. This means it can be used to gain income from farms along with other returning workers if you run out of workers to place, whereupon they all gain a level, too.
Positive interaction of this kind is very novel, and it leaves Apiary in the brilliant position of feeling like a highly interactive game without the zero-sum, “take that” bites that a certain kind of gamer hates. Rather, bumping players off spots is often doing them a favor, and you need to take that into account when deciding your moves. Some spaces will hold two workers, and you get the action at the strength of them both added together, so, again, you must be careful being first to the spot. You get the advantage of an early selection, but you’re handing a hand-up to the following player. It’s a lovely balance of competing priorities.
Worker leveling also feeds into the end game and becomes a major source of points. Level four workers, the highest grade, are very powerful. Not only do they lend the highest level to their action, but they grant an additional bonus. A convert action with such a worker, for instance, lets you “dance,” creating a custom conversion of your choice that other players can later pay you to use. They’re also the only workers that can use the Monument action, which lets you buy tiles offering big end-game points. But once used, these top-level workers have to go into hibernation, earning you a small extra bonus, and once a player has hibernated seven bees, the game ends.
This gives control of the game end to player choice in yet another layer of interlocking systems. Indeed, if anything, there’s almost too much going on at once in Apiary. While the core rules loop isn’t that difficult to learn, the sheer number of options can feel overwhelming to new players. And even for the more experienced, it can make it hard to understand how the mechanical levers you’re pulling are leading to you getting points, or lack thereof. The result is a feeling of disconnect that’s sometimes frustrating, especially if you’re looking to work out how you can improve your play.
Mechanical disconnect like this is often a sign of a game that’s divorced from its theme and, indeed, Apiary is semi-abstract. You can see echoes of the bee’s lifecycle in the way you need to construct cells to expand your hive and, of course, in the busy nature of the workers you place. But at the same time, the game uses its futuristic overtones to good effect. This is particularly clear in the different game factions, each of which has its own starting setup and ways to score bonus points, giving you a huge pot of varied strategies to try out.